A Struggling Stage

_89748036_89748033.jpgIn a recent piece of photo journalism, India’s former folk theatre actors struggle to survive the BBC published a set of images, taken by Soumya Sankar Bose, of former Jatra performers from West Bengal, India.  New to me, and with a claim in the article that Jatra is a dying art, I started to investigate.

Jatra is an ancient theatre form which originated in 16th Century and like most theatre forms, has it’s roots in religious devotion, its literal translation in to English being,  to go in a procession. What has fascinated me most though is the fact that it has constantly evolved both thematically and in form.  Originally a musical theatre form, it has gone on to include prose, improvised dialogue, and comic interludes. The original narratives were great Indian classics like the Ramayana,  but come the 20th Century, Jatra transformed into a theatre that supported the growing calls of independence from the British and, for a time, became a vehicle of political satire and protest. This led to some performances being banned by the colonists who had once embraced it. At the same time, with the rise of communism in some Indian states, Lenin even made an appearance in some Jatra performances which positively portrayed communist ideologies and thought. However, even in this period, song remained at the heart of Jatra.


Following the World War II, Jatra started to fall into decline, with the arrival of radio, television and then Bollywood, although it still remained popular in the more rural communities. However, in West Bengal, where it originated, it is still popular today and according to one source, Jatra performances can draw an audience of up to 20,000. On the other hand, in an article for Indian Express, An Hour Upon The Stage, Premankur Biswas talks to some of the retired performers that Soumya Sankar Bose photographed, as well as Bose himself, and they tell a very different story:

Today, there are about 20 Jatra companies in Kolkata’s famous Chitpore district. In 2001, there were over 300 companies which employed over 20,000 people.

“The 20-odd troupes will also close down in a few years. The Partition had a major impact on jatra. Artistes in the newly formed East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), stopped enacting Hindu folk tales of Krishna lila, Kongsho bodh, etc. On the other side of the border, artistes in West Bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj-ud-daulah. The advent of cinema and TV in the 1960s and 1970s was another major blow,” says Bose.

Jayashree Mukherjee, 66, who started her career in 1965, hasn’t acted in a jatra pala for about five years. She was 14 when she was spotted selling flower garlands at a north Kolkata market by renowned jatra director Bhavesh Kundu. She had five mouths to feed. “My father had lost his job and I had younger siblings. Bhaveshda asked me if I could act, I couldn’t say no,” says Mukherjee.

Her first role, the titular character in the popular Tapasi, required her to play a child bride married to a 40-something zamindar. “I would just mouth lines but people loved my performance,” says Mukherjee. For the next 20 years, Mukherjee played lead roles in a number of jatra palas, but the 1980s spelled doom. “Television ate away a large chunk of our market. Producers started bringing film stars to jatras to draw in the crowds,” says Mukherjee. Since the 1990s, popular film stars like Moon Moon Sen, Satabdi Roy and Raveena Tandon have performed in jatras.

Mukherjee, who acted in a jatra pala with Raveena Tandon about a decade ago, was paid Rs 1,000 for her efforts, while Tandon was paid “more than Rs 1,00,000”. Mukherjee does small roles in television serials now. “At times, I make about Rs 8,000 in a month, at times not even that. There are months where I don’t get any work. And to think less than two decades ago, I was too busy to attend even a nephew’s wedding”.

I have really only skimmed the surface of the rich history of Jatra.  There are some good sources if you want to read further. There is this one from Indiaprofile.com and then this more detailed one from Yakshagana Cultural Magazine, which covers staging and so on. There are more of Bose’s photos here. If you want real detail and have access to JSTOR, there is a volume of the Journal of South Asian Literature devoted to Jatra.

Final, a look at the Jatra itself:


A Call For Action

ConstitutionFor those of us that teach and learn in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the academic year is soon to be upon us. I always quite like this period, as you tend to find yourself  developing new curriculum materials for the forthcoming year. This week I have been researching and writing materials for different kinds of documentary theatre, most specifically verbatim theatre and Living Newspapersand it is the latter I want to write about today.

Now my knowledge of Living Newspapers was not huge.  I knew that the form first emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, where it was used to present news and Bolshevik propaganda to the illiterate masses. Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky are connected with the genre, as are Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. The form included using lantern slides (projections), songs, newspaper readings, and film segments – so, very ‘multimedia’ for the time.  During my research however, I was intrigued to come across the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which in certain sources, is mistakenly claimed to be the originator of Living Newspapers. FTP was part of a government funded arts program established in the US in the 1930s,  which wrote and presented a number of Living Newspapers on social issues of the day. You can see some of the scripts here.  The Manual For Federal Theatre Project makes fascinating reading. Not surprisingly, the political ideology behind the Living Newspaper was controversial and the FPT was disbanded in 1939. However, as noted by Alexis Soloski in an article for The Guardian, the Federal Theatre Project

….codified the genre, drawing on techniques first introduced by Bolshevik artists and the Italian futurists. A series of documentary plays with an activist bent, Living Newspapers used theatrical techniques to render complicated social and political issues relevant and intelligible. Playwrights researched various topics – poverty, the invasion of Ethiopia, venereal disease – and then invented a narrative and characters to dramatise them. Low ticket prices made them accessible to a popular audience. Living Newspapers weren’t subtle – for better or worse. They simplified complicated issues and felt no particular compunction to represent all sides of an argument. Some of the scripts are quite preachy and end with a call for action, such as joining a union or being tested for syphilis.

It seems there are few companies currently engaged in creating Living Newspapers. One exception is C & T Theatre Company, who run a project for young people, called, not surprisingly, Living Newspaper They have created a series of ‘5 Rules’ – Be Funny, Be Direct, Juxtapose, Agitate and Let the Facts Speak For Themselves – with accompanying videos that tell you how to create effective Living Newspapers:


C &T have a global reach, having created Living Newspapers in Japan about passive smoking, in Australia about Climate Change and  lead workshops in Gambia about how to create online Living Newspapers using mobile phones.

Essentially all documentary theatre is political by nature, being a call for social action. In the U.S. The Civilians Investigative Theatre is leader in the field. In the UK, Common Wealth Theatre are a force to be reckoned with too.  The difference with the Living Newspaper form is that it is meant to agitate, to call for direct action with a view to bringing about change in a very visceral way. 

I think I’m off now to make my own, featuring a certain Donald Trump!

Vive La Revolution, People!

Larger Than Life

My second share today is a series of videos made for the UK’s National Theatre  by Gyre & Gimble, a celebrated puppet company founded in 2014 by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, who were associate puppetry directors on the global theatrical hit, War Horse.

In the first video, Olié and Caldwell demonstrate a step-by-step guide for making a brown paper man puppet, which would be an excellent alternative for anyone want to work with Bunraku puppets.

The second video is a master class in bringing oversized puppets to life.

The third and final video focuses on storytelling through puppetry.

If you haven’t seen them, there is a whole series of excellent puppetry videos from The National here, including more from  Olié and Caldwell about their show The Elephantom,   created for temporary stage at The National.

Brook Of The Century

220px-Peter_BrookI have a backlog of bits and pieces I’ve been meaning to share so here goes the first. Veteran theatre maker Peter Brook is still going strong at the age of 91. As the UK’s most influential theatre director of the 20th Century (despite being based in France for many years) Brook’s contribution to theatre is almost unmeasurable. In an article for The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish comments that detailing his long-lasting contribution [to the stage] is a daunting task. He goes on to say:

In a career that has stretched across an unrivalled seven decades, he has washed up fresh ideas on our shores, and helped sweep away much of our theatre’s conventionality, insularity and clutter. Scores of books have been written about him. But one single phrase goes to the heart of explaining the transformation he has helped to bring about: “the empty space”, the title of the slim volume he produced in 1968 that has remained a manifesto of sorts for successive generations of theatre-makers.

Will I be alive for the opening night?’ was written earlier this year, prior to the opening of his latest work, Battlefield, which had since toured globally, including a celebrated showing here in Hong Kong.

Brook’s career and influence is such that he features in Theatre and Performance Collection at the Victorian and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. As part of this collection, the museum have produced an excellent resource pack,  which explores why Brook and his collaborators approached particular plays and themes when they did. Click this link, Peter Brook Resource Book, to download a copy.

A Sensory Stage

logoI stumbled across this quite incredible TEDx presentation yesterday and just had to share it. It is given by Adina Tal, founder of the NaLagaat Theatre, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Clearly an inspirational character, Tal talks about how she came about forming the first blind-deaf theatre company in the world. I urge you to watch it.


To quote directly from their website:

The theater ensembles of Nalaga’at are composed of 18 deaf-blind actors. Some of the actors are completely deaf-blind, some have remants of vision or residual hearing. All actors have personal interpreters of sign language by touch, who accompany them during rehearsals and performances. Most of the actors have “Usher Syndrome” – a genetic syndrome in which the person is born deaf or with hearing impairment, and developes during adolescence to retinitis pigmentosa eye disease, leading to visual impairments and blindness..
Ongoing employment of the actors strengthens their self confidece, improve their interpersonal communication ability, reduce their social isolation and allows meetings with the seeing and hearing audience and with people with the same and different disabilities. Most of the deaf-blind people can communicate only with a person who knows to sign language by touch or to use the “glove” system (every joint on the palm of the hand is a letter in Hebrew that you can type on). Communication between the deaf-blind actors at Nalaga’at has developed in many ways, as every person in the group has different needs and abilities.


Nalaga’at means “Please Touch” in Hebrew and the centre that houses the theatre company, also has a restaurant, The Blackout where diners are served in total darkness by blind waiters and Café Kapish where the serving staff communicate with you in sign language.


In an article for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner says that watching the company is a compelling, idiosyncratic and joyous theatre experience. Entitled Blind Man’s LoafGardner paints a very  vivid picture of the whole Nalaga’at experience. Wonderful.

The Wonder Of Will

tumblr_inline_nzi1m2GTrM1sxteos_500There have been thousands of programmes, documentaries, scholarly articles, performances and events broadcast, written and produced over the last couple of months to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Looking across the global media, new and old, it seems that in almost every country, English speaking or not, William Shakespeare and his work has been celebrated.

Amongst all of these, the ones that have really caught my attention have been those that have explored the relevancy of the Bard in a modern ever-changing world.  In particular, today, I want to share a 2 programme series broadcast by the BBC. In the first episode, presented by Nikki Bedi, Shakespeare In India  explores how the cannon  remains relevant in the sub-continent. It looks at how much of the work resonates with the politics, culture and social norms of today and how Shakespeare has faired in a post-colonial world.  The programme also touches on Parsi Theatre, which was new to me.

The second episode, Shakespeare in South Africa is even more interesting. Presented by writer Nadia Davids, it explores how Shakespeare is being performed as a way of discussing race, violence against women, and the current political crisis around President Zuma.  What particularly struck a chord with me however, is the discussion of Shakespeare as part of the debate about decolonising education.


Puppets in Penang

Puppet HouseI have just returned from a short trip to Penang, Malaysia and while I was there a came across a real little gem, the Teochew Puppet and Opera House Museum. Based in an old shophouse in the George Town UNESCO World Heritage site, it tells the story of a Chinese puppet and opera form I had never come across before. To call it a museum is a bit misleading, as they also stage puppet performances and operas on the premises, as well as leading workshops in both forms they promote.

To give it some context,  Teochew is a dialect that is native to the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong, whose people spread across the region in the 19th Century (and later, the world), taking their culture with them.

In an article for New Straits Times, Pauline Fan gives a short history of the Museum which is now run by the a 5th generation opera performer and puppeteer, Ling Goh. In another, for the Malay Mail, Vivian Cheong gives a more detailed sketch of family, which is quite fascinating.

Although the Opera House doesn’t have it’s own website, it does have a very well kept Facebook page, here,  which has much more information.

If you find yourself in Penang, I thoroughly recommend a visit and if there is no one else there when you drop by, you will get your own personal tour, as I did, as well as some hands on experience with the puppets themselves.

Out For The Count

A play at the National Theatre in London recently made headlines, but for an unusual reason. In the first 6 days of previews,  5 people fainted and 40 people left the auditorium apparently shocked at scenes of graphic violence and torture.


The play in question was Sara Kane’s 1998 Cleansed, directed by celebrated and controversial British director, Katie Mitchell. According to a report in The Guardian,

the revival of the production features characters being electrocuted, force-fed and tortured – including the removal of one character’s tongue 20 minutes into the play – which has proved too much for dozens of audience members during the first six performances. Five others were so overwhelmed they fainted and required medical attention. During one preview, the lights in the auditorium went up and ushers came into the audience to help a man who had collapsed.


Mitchell admitted the production had taken its toll on the cast, who all had “very strange nightmares where very extreme events take place”. She [said]: “We have to laugh a lot in order to balance the despair and the darkness of the material.” But she argued people’s shock at the violent production was also related to the fact it was written by a young woman. “There isn’t a big tradition of putting the violence of atrocity on stage in Britain,” she said. “We’re afraid of that dark female voice that insists we examine pornography and violence. We just don’t feel comfortable being asked to do those things, particularly by a woman.”

Amongst other things, this of course raises many questions about verisimilitude on stage, but when violence is clearly ‘done this well’, you have to commend the theatre practitioners behind it – both on and off stage. I say this not because I particularly enjoy watching human suffering being performed in front of me, but because I spend a lot time talking to younger students about why such acts only work when they are truly believable. Kane’s plays are never easy on the audience and nor are they meant to be and in Mitchell’s hands this production was bound to be particularly brutal. The play itself is based on a university campus turned interrogation centre, in which a series of misfits are subjected to vicious tests to prove their love, with scenes including hands being cut off, incest, electric shocks, murder and suicide amongst other horrors.

According to an excellent profile of her, British theatre’s queen in exilewritten by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Katie Mitchell provokes strong reactions:

mitchellphotoSome think of her as a vandal, ripping apart classic texts and distorting them to her own dubious purpose. Others consider her to be the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today – indeed, among the greatest in the world. Her critics characterise her as high-minded and humourless, a kind of hatchet-faced governess intent on feeding her audiences with the improving and bleak. Others, though, talk about her gentleness, empathy and swiftness to burst into a joyous and slightly dirty laugh. One theatre professional told me that some agents only reluctantly put forward actors for Mitchell’s productions because of her fearsome reputation; and yet there are actors who have worked with her for 30 years.

Mitchell has been described as a director who polarises audiences like no other and in the way the critics have received Cleansed,  she has clearly managed to do the same with this current production. One said that the play left him feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness while another said you’ll either walk out or give it a standing ovation.

In an interview for the BBC strand Front RowMitchell said those who focus on the violence are missing the point:

All of the torture that is going on is led by a doctor whose making tests about love, its durability. The gay couple in it, the durability of their love is being tested, and they are being tortured to see whether their love will survive, and their love does. So love wins in this play, not violence.

She also talks about the technicalities of staging a play like Cleansed and why British theatre-goers struggle with seeing violence on stage in this way. Fascinating – I recommend a listen:
In an equally compelling interview with theatre critic Matt Trueman, Mitchell talks in greater detail about the production and her approach to the play.


Misbehaving Beautifully

As the academic term comes to a close, I have been pondering the fact that nearly all my students, no matter what grade, have recently been working in some kind of collaborative physical theatre form. We teach and use Viewpoints in a lot of our work, even if the students don’t realise it, with Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s now seminal publication, The Viewpoints Bookbeing a well thumbed tome on our bookshelves.


In addition, I have spent this week at an International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) Festival in Taiwan, where the students were exploring the language of theatre. Almost all the work they created communicated through bodies in space and again it struck me that spoken narrative played a secondary role in the stories they were telling.

All this has prompted me to share this video from a TEDGlobal event. In it, choreographer Wayne McGregor demonstrates how he  communicates ideas to an audience, building his work in a seemingly simple way. It revolves around the concept of physical thinking which particularly resonates with me as a theatre maker. Give the video a watch for sure, but don’t miss out on the discussion that follows in the comment section afterwards. Together they make for a great way into thinking about physical representation and storytelling on stage.